Not an American Book!


Mastered By the Book from The Gospel Coalition on Vimeo.

Roy Ciampa’s eye-opening article on identity mapping (posted here) is a stunning real-life case study of the issue being debated by John Piper and D.A. Carson in this video. Just how important is the study of the cultural, historical, and social background of the Bible in our understanding of the Bible’s message?  Worded another way, How much time should a pastor or Bible teacher spend studying the Bible vs extra-biblical sources?

What may sound rather academic on the surface, is actually about as down-to-earth as a person can get and hugely important for those who preach and teach God’s Word. Based on the feedback I’m getting to Roy’s article (mostly on FaceBook and in emails), there’s no question that his historical/cultural research into first century marriage has brought a game-changing clarity to Paul’s instructions to husbands and wives in Ephesians 5.

Frankly, I think the Piper/Carson debate misses the point and, to be honest, actually borders on nonsense. They focus on how much time one spends studying the text vs studying the historical/cultural context in which the text was written and which it addresses. It is as though one approach is more spiritual than the other, rather than that the two aspects of Bible study go hand-in-hand.

In my opinion, Carson is on the right track and is wisely concerned about the neglect of historical/cultural study, but concedes too much ground to Piper. I find it disturbing that Christian leaders would do such a delicate dance around an issue that is costing all of us too much. Nowhere is that high price more evident than in the handling of biblical passages concerning women.

Isn’t the real issue what study is needed to more clearly understand the text? Does it really matter how much time we spend in the text vs digging into the history that will illumine that text if, in the end, we come closer to understanding what the writer actually meant? Who’s watching the clock, if the purpose of study is to unearth the writer’s meaning and making use of every available resource to reach that goal? What kind of preaching results when the preacher assumes they can understand and explain the Bible without investigating the ancient world they’re interpreting? With all due respect, a little digging into the cultural background (or even some recent commentaries) would have made a dramatic difference in the recent book John Piper wrote on the Book of Ruth. If you want to see the contrast, read The Gospel of Ruth—Loving God Enough to Break the Rules.

Roy’s article on Christian marriage underscores just how high the stakes are in this discussion. We are misguided to assume cultural research is incidental to the study of God’s Word. We are dealing with an ancient text from a world vastly different from our own. If we fail to investigate the past to find out what life was like back then, we inevitably default to our own American/Western culture. And for that, we pay a price that is too dear. At best, we drain the text of richness, power, and meaning. At worst, we completely miss the meaning.

Questions of culture are absolutely relevant to all of us—not only the first century culture, but our own cultural context. None of us is culturally neutral. Inevitably, we bring our own cultural assumptions with us when we study God’s Word. We need constant reminding (and this should begin a more humble approach to Scripture) that the Bible is not an American book. It is an Ancient Near Eastern book. And we are foreigners to that world, who have a lot to learn.

What about our culture drives our thinking and thus impacts our interpretations of the Bible?

What do you think?

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6 Responses to Not an American Book!

  1. michaelivan says:

    Seems like this a great perspective to consider when wrestling with the issue of homosexual relationships and marriage equality. I don't know if that is something you'd consider to be relevant or not–but would be curious to know how that same treatment of understanding cultural bias within the Bible would play out with this other modern day issue.

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  2. Carolyn says:

    I should think this perspective holds true with any issue. Methods we employ to study scripture apply to every text of Scripture.

    Also, it is important to note that this is very different from categorizing passages as “cultural” vs “universal” and dismissing them as irrelevant to today. Rather, it heightens the challenge facing all of us to dig deeper to take the gospel teachings of Jesus and apply them to every relationship and area of life, just as Paul is doing in Ephesians 5 with the typical 1st Century marriage. Jesus' gospel still transforms marriage in the 21st Century.

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  3. Lori says:

    It seem like there is a schizophrenia almost in the average American Evangelical church. Certain passages, we automatically default to the cultural understanding ie foot washing, head covering. But other passages, it is almost considered sacrilegeous to explore passages that are so “clearly meant for today” ie wives submitting,husbands leading. The double standard is head scratching as Scot McKnight illuminates in Blue Parakeet. I also find it interesting that delving into cultural context to understand the life and times of Jesus in the Gospels is OK. Not so with the Pauline books. Head scratching.

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  4. SylvanaB says:

    So much of my life experience influences my first reading of a biblical text and in so many ways I am simply not aware of it. I cannot remove my British ex-pat, middle class, educated mother and house wife glasses. Neither can I remove my catholic through pentecostal, Anglican and evangelical church experience, nor the scars of the hurts I carry nor the memories of joy I hold. From the moment I was born, maybe even before that, my eventual spin on a biblical text was being shaped and my glasses get more and more sophisticated as I grow older. The corrective prescription I need to see the text as it is meant to be gets potentially more and more complex, yet at the same time, I hope I understand more and more that there are subtleties I do not comprehend. So long as I keep that in mind and listen to the differing opinions of others and investigate why, I stand to make fewer important errors of interpretation. The research of others into cultural and contextual interpretation of biblical texts is invaluable, whether I myself spend hours doing the fundamental research or simply take the time to read a few articles and commentaries. I pray that as international communication grows easier and easier, rather than seeking to conquer other cultures and overwrite them with our own, we will take the time to delve into what makes others the way they are, what makes them believe what they believe and that we might be humble enough to ask how that effects our understanding of what God is saying to all of us in the Bible.

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  5. andrena says:

    It looks like I will have to add you to my reading list along with Peter Enns and John Walton. You all seem to be asking what does the Bible mean in it's original culture. The approach seems to be a fruitful one and might bring a welcome reduction in the intensity of the “culture wars” even if that is not the primary reason for using ancient culture to interpret ancient writings. I read folks like you because I have a very different perspective. I'm an ex-Christian who finds your collective thinking fascinating. I've gone the full monty to metaphysical materialism as the only reasonable alternative left standing after considering the options but still find reading Christian authors meaningful. Perhaps that is the result of being the son of a Baptist preacher. We now live in a strange cultural amalgam of hedonism and Christianity with competing visions of reality and how we can decide to live. So I read authors like you, Walton and Enns on one hand and Jerry Coyne, Massimo Pigliucci and Christopher Hitchens on the other. Hedonism is a non-starter as Hitchens demonstrated to his dismay but science and religion present wildly different scenarios for meaning and ethics. (I read the science because I’m a university biology professor.) Your discussion of how women should be treated in marriage is both interesting and welcome. I will happily follow you and Held Evans as you present your thinking. But I have a question and the question is the reason for describing my own thinking first. You now have the option of discounting the rants of an atheist if you so choose. If I understand you correctly, you are saying that ancient culture had some very different ways of living and thinking. We need to be aware of this and take this into account when interpreting Scripture. All well and good. You have made a strong case. But haven’t you also opened a can of worms? If you say that the Bible was produced in a long-ago culture that should be used to properly understand its meaning, have you also raised the issue that all of it could be viewed as a pre-scientific, eastern Mediterranean document and all of its claims could be thusly discounted or reinterpreted? How do you decide what should be reinterpreted without the boundary appearing ad hoc? I have been a fan of Rachael Held Evans for some time because she declares that we should love the Bible for what it is. She is a brave woman for the stands that she takes. But both of you raise the question for me. How do you decide what the Bible is?

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  6. Laurie says:

    Andrena – you raise a very good question! I look forward to Carolyn and this community conversing more on that.
    About me…I just discovered your writing's, Carolyn, and just in the nick of time 🙂 I, too, believe that a certain schizophrenia exists within “the church.” And I am SO done with it. I find it hard to believe that the men and women in the church of 9,000 we attend (in sunny “open” California) are OK with the double standard that exists. We have studied countless books in the Bible as a congregation, and certain practices/rules are labeled as not-necessary-to-follow, while other directives by Paul and Peter are still absolute! Unbreakable…can't be changed…so, women, submit, stay in your place, remember you can't speak in church, shouldn't work outside the home, etc. The church we attend just launched a delve into the Bible campaign with several DVD presentations as small group curriculum. Not one of those DVD devotionals is by a woman. I feel this overall approach and similar ones like it must contribute to the oppression of women here in the US and all around the world. It seems to me that it fosters the belief that women are simply not as important as men.

    This culture that we have at our church does drive our thinking. It makes us view women as expendable. Conversely, the perpetual, crowned, needed leaders i.e. men are not expendable. My life has changed since volunteering these past 3 years at a girls' safe house. My views have changed and my frustration with “the church” has deepened after becoming friends with precious, smart, treasured, worthy people who were once trafficked for sex and used as a commodity. Yet – our non-profit struggles for funding and for even a general interest from most local churches…because females are second class citizens.

    What I've heard at church for the past 35 years doesn't sound like Jesus at all to me. What I get from Jesus is that it's all more simple than it's been preached and “theologized” over and over… The church — and many women are at fault in this as well for buying into it — the church has explained away their apathy and inactivity with clever sounding theology. I feel that abuse of women and children is rampant around the world largely in part because of the gender issues in the church at large. If we honestly, simply, refreshing-ly focus on loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves, as Jesus said to do… wouldn't everyone sitting in the proverbial pews be more aware of the abuses others face – wouldn't they step up to say “no more” and do something? We have some wonderful pioneers, yes, but what about the masses?

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